The Last of the Wine

The Last of the Wine
Mary Renault
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from the Amazon page:
“Alexias is a young aristocrat living during the end of Athens’s Golden Age. Prized for his beauty and athletic prowess, Alexias studies under Sokrates with his closest friend, Lysis. Together, the young men come of age in an Athens on the verge of great upheaval. They attend the Olympics, partake in symposia, fight on the battlefields of the Peloponnesian War, and fall in love.

The first of Mary Renault’s celebrated historical novels of ancient Greece, The Last of the Wine follows Alexias and Lysis into adulthood, when Athens is defeated by Sparta, the Thirty Tyrants take hold of the city, and the lives of both men are changed forever. Through their friendship, Renault opens a vista onto ancient Greek life, uncovering its vibrancy, culture, and political strife, and offers an unforgettable story of love, honor, loyalty, and the remarkable bond between two men.”

I feel a bit under-qualified to speak about Mary Renault’s historical fiction. I’m not a classicist, and pretty much all of my knowledge of that period is drawn from popular works like The Odyssey or Symposium, so I really have no idea how historically accurate her work is. After thinking about it a bit, I decided it doesn’t really matter whether it’s accurate or not. The Last of the Wine’s value comes from its rich representation of an alternative culture, not from some intrinsic truthfulness. Historical fiction author Hilary Mantel expresses this in much more eloquent terms:

“[Mary Renault] does not pretend the past is like the present, or that the people of ancient Greece were just like us. She shows us their strangeness; discerning, sure-footed, challenging our values, piquing our curiosity, she leads us through an alien landscape that moves and delights us.”

To say that Renault’s Grecians are not like us might seem obvious, but it’s easy to underestimate just how alien they can seem at times. It’s not like a fantasy novel, where a fictional civilization still operates on modern western principles, Alexias and Lysis truly live by laws and values that today seem incredibly foreign to us (and even morally dubious). Sometimes this manifests itself in unexpected ways, such as Alexias’ father advising him on choosing an older male lover when he’s 16, or the practice of exposing infants when the child is undesirable, either because it is female or because the family is too poor. We know these things to be historical facts, but it’s unusual to see them performed without any of the usual reflexive commentary by our own culture.

I found it to be both a humbling and comforting experience to read. Humbling, because, more than sci-fi or fantasy, it caused me to reflect on my own culture and to remember that the way we are is not the way we have always been, and is not the way we always need to be. Comforting, for about the same reason. It was an exciting experience to watch Alexias, at 16, trotting around like a Victorian debutante, attracting the gaze of half the men in the city. I’m not saying that Greek pederasty is a key component of an ideal society, but it was something different. A different way of thinking about intimacy, sexuality, and society that helped expand my views of my own culture.

Warchild

Warchild
Karin Lowachee
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Ender’s Game was my absolute favorite book as a kid. I read it over and over, even listening to the audiobook while I was falling asleep. I’m not sure exactly why I was so into it, but, being the obnoxious child I was, it probably had something to do with the too-smart-for-you kid protagonist whose intelligence alienated him from his peers. Still love that book to death. Anyways, Warchild is channeling that same child-prodigy-in-a-space-opera energy and it’s still awesome. Joslyn Musey is only eight years old when he’s orphaned in a violent pirate attack and taken captive by one of Earthhub’s most infamous pirate captains. Suddenly finding himself in a hostile environment without family or friends to turn to, it will take all the strength and resolve Jos has to stay alive, but an unexpected turn of events delivers him from his captivity… straight into the arms of the alien strit, Earthub’s longtime enemies. Now he’s caught in the middle of an interstellar war and discovering that everything he thought he knew about it was wrong.

Warchild is first and foremost a story of trauma. It’s a deeply psychological and character driven military drama that departs from the traditional sci-fi focus on technology and society in order to concentrate more on individual people. Jos is not alright, but he’s trying to be, and that’s what Lowachee is writing about. What really gives the story its edge is the sexual dimension of Jos’ abuse. We’re never really told exactly what happened, but we can observe its effects on his character. The world of Warchild seems to be one of sexual fluidity, with little distinction made between hetero- and homosexual relations, but Jos himself displays little inclination towards either sex. It would be inappropriate to make assumptions about his sexuality given his past experiences, but his behavior at least tends towards asexual. 

After I finished rereading Warchild I was reflecting on how strongly the book stayed with me and how much I enjoyed it. I tend to shy away from too-tragic or depressing stories, a side-effect of reading too much mid-century gay literature, so why am I fine with this one? I guess I don’t really think it’s that depressing; it’s a story of trauma but it’s also one of recovery, and I find that really uplifting. I also wonder how much the sexual component of the book contributed to that. I never had an experience remotely similar to Jos’, but many years of denying a core part of yourself must cause its own type of damage. If Jos can recover, why can’t I? Or anyone else for that matter. That’s probably a little melodramatic and self-indulgent, but fuck it, it feels good to be that way sometimes.

Magic’s Pawn

Magic’s Pawn
by Mercedes Lackey
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from the Amazon page:

“Though Vanyel has been born with near-legendary abilities to work both Herald and Mage magic, he wasn’t no part in such things. Nor does he seek a warrior’s path, wishing instead to become a Bard. Yet such talent as his, if left untrained, may prove a menace not only to Vanyel but to others as well. So he is sent to be fostered with his aunt, Savil, one of the fame Herald-Mages of Valdemar.

But, strong-willed and self-centered, Vanyel is a challenge which even Savil cannot master alone. For soon he will become the focus of frightening forces, lending his raw magic to a spell that unleashes terrifying wyr-hunters on the land. And by the time Savil seeks the assistance of a Shin’a’in Adept, Vanyel’s wild talent may have already grown beyond anyone’s ability to contain, placing Vanyel, Savil, and Valdemar itself in desperate peril.”

I gave Magic’s Pawn a bit of short shrift in my write-up for Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, so I hope to do it a little more credit here. I initially implied that this book is a gay tragedy, but as I reflect on it, it seems very unjust to reduce it to that label. Just because a tragedy may be present doesn’t mean that a work needs to be defined by it (though plenty are). Lackey’s depiction of homosexuality is sophisticated and reveals a deeper understanding of real-world issues which she reflects onto the land of Valdemar. Modern fantasy novels with queer characters often present worlds in which gender and orientation are a non-issue, and while that’s nice to imagine, it’s too far removed from reality to carry much impact. Lackey’s more realistic approach grants the story a lot more weight, which is perhaps why it was so difficult for me to read when I was younger.

Vanyel’s journey to self-acceptance is a long one chock full of angst and melodrama, just like real ones often are. It’s probably most enjoyable (and useful) when the reader is at a similar stage of their personal development or if they’re in the mood to feel sorry for themselves (that’s not a dig, everyone needs a pity party sometimes!). Subject matter aside, it’s an excellent work of fantasy and easily stands alone on those merits. Mercedes Lackey is a household name in fantasy world after all, and she’s published a ridiculous amount of books, many in the same world of Valdemar. I’ve read several others by her and found them all of equally high quality, with Foundation being a favorite. I still think that Magic’s Pawn is too tragic for me, but I suppose the late ‘80s were a pretty tragic time and it’s only natural that the book would reflect that. And of course not everyone will feel that way about tragedy. I think my aversion to it comes from spending too much time immersed in classic gay literature, which is invariably depressing. Anyways, it’s worth a read so be sure to give it a shot.

Family of Lies: Sebastian

51l50ipatql

Family of Lies: Sebastian
by Sam Argent
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

This is my guilty pleasure book. It’s like a concentrated shot of angst, humor, and romance in a fantasy setting with no frills and I love it. Sebastian Orwell is the youngest son of a disgraced noble family and he just wants to be left alone. But when he finally gets a break from his incorrigible relatives, he chances upon the wounded Prince Turrin and knows his vacation is doomed. He tries leaving the prince in a nearby inn, where he’ll be someone else’s problem, but of course the prince insists on tracking him down to thank him in person. Now Sebastian finds himself unwillingly involved in combating a conspiracy against the Turrin, made all the more frustrating by the prince’s relentless romantic designs on him. Somehow, Sebastian will need to handle all of this without revealing his own powers, or the true reason he hides his face

For me, the chief appeal of this book lies in its dialogue. Every line in it is dripping in wit, and each character seems to have their own special brand. Sebastian and his improbably dysfunctional family share some of the most blistering exchanges, and it quickly becomes apparent why the title is Family of Lies, and why he’s always eager to get away from his relatives. Although this is a fantasy book, Argent doesn’t devote much time to initial world-building. Instead, much like a science fiction novel, she gives the reader information on the go, usually revealing it through interactions and dialogue between characters. This helps set a brisk pace that I found very engaging, but I could see as being a bit bewildering for some readers.

I know that the dynamic between Sebastien and Turrin is not particularly realistic or maybe even healthy (you probably shouldn’t go racing from town to town after someone who treats you with contempt), but it sure is fun to think about. It’s a bit heartwarming to watch Sebastian thaw towards Turrin over the course of the story, and as we learn more about both of the characters (and their families) their respective behaviors and attitudes start to make a lot more sense. For me, Family of Lies pushes all the right buttons so I don’t have much bad to say about it, but it’s definitely not a traditional romance or a traditional fantasy, so be prepared for something a little different if you decide to give it a shot.

Bloom

51slrhff91l

Bloom
by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

When I was younger I never had much to do with graphic novels, comics, or manga. They somehow managed to be the one ‘nerdy’ thing I never participated in. Looking back I think it was mostly an economical decision. A novel could provide many hours of reading whereas comics or graphic novels only gave me one or two, and I needed enough material to tide me over until the next time my parents could take me to the library. I remember checking a manga out at the library once, I think it was a chapter from Inuyasha, and finishing it before we even left, so they just weren’t a viable time sink for me then. Unrelatedly, I think that manga was the first place I ever saw a boob (just one). Needless to say it was an anti-climactic experience for me. Anyways, this is my really roundabout way of explaining that I don’t know squat about the graphic novel medium, so take my brief opinions on Bloom with a grain of salt.

Beautifully illustrated in monochromatic blue, Bloom tells the story of Ari during the summer after his last year of high school. He’s more than ready to move to the big city with his friends, but the family bakery is struggling and his parents don’t want him to go. But Ari is determined to escape  a lifetime of baking in a small town, and when he starts searching for a replacement he meets Hector, a culinary student on hiatus from school. Over the summer the two grow closer as they work together to keep the bakery in business, and as the months go on Ari finds that he has some important choices to make.

I’m a fan of monochromatic art styles so Bloom caught my eye pretty quickly after its release, but it wasn’t until I came across it in a bookstore months later that I actually bought it. Truth be told I’ve been feeling a little chagrined at my ignorance of visual mediums like comics, and this book seemed like a fine place to start exploring. And I had a lot of fun reading it! Panetta and Ganucheau do a good job showing instead of telling, and the baking scene spreads were beautiful and inspiring (or would be if I knew how to bake). From a narrative perspective I don’t really have a lot to say. It’s a pretty standard coming of age, small town meet cute affair, which there’s nothing wrong with, there’s just a lot of it. I will mention that the ending did feel rushed, but the slow-burn relationship leading up to it was still very satisfying (most romances seem to have the opposite problem). All in all it was definitely worth the purchase, and I feel inspired to continue exploring other graphic novels like this.

Greenwode

51kmle3twql._sx331_bo1204203200_

Greenwode
by J Tullos Hennig
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from the Amazon page:

“When an old druid foresees this harbinger of chaos, he also glimpses its future. A peasant from Loxley will wear the Hood and, with his sister, command a last, desperate bastion of Old Religion against New. Yet a devout nobleman’s son could well be their destruction-Gamelyn Boundys, whom Rob and Marion have befriended. Such acquaintance challenges both duty and destiny. The old druid warns that Rob and Gamelyn will be cast as sworn enemies, locked in timeless and symbolic struggle for the greenwode’s Maiden.

Instead, a defiant Rob dares his Horned God to reinterpret the ancient rites, allow Rob to take Gamelyn as lover instead of rival. But in the eyes of Gamelyn’s Church, sodomy is unthinkable… and the old pagan magics are an evil that must be vanquished.”

I love retellings of classic stories and fairytales, especially when they’re tweaked or expanded to focus on different types of people (especially when those people are like me!). But to call J Tullos Hennig’s Greenwode a simple retelling would not communicate the depth and substance of the book. Hennig’s version of the Robin Hood myth is much more like Stephen Lawhead’s than Disney’s: complex, meticulously researched, and vividly realized. The culture and conflicts of the middle age setting plays a major role in the plot, and Hennig devotes plenty of energy developing Gamelyn, Rob, Marian, and others into believable, sympathetic characters instead of leaving them as mere mythic archetypes.

It’s important to know up front that Greenwode is on the longer side and ends in a cliffhanger. The sequel, Shirewood, is worth reading regardless, but I understand why the necessity of reading a second book might be frustrating for some. I found Greenwode to be an enjoyable historical fantasy/coming of age story on its own, but definitely a bit grim. The spectre of religious conflict seemed always to be present and gave even happier or funnier scenes a darker tone and sense of foreboding, and hit a little too close to home for me. But maybe I’m just not cut out for forbidden romances. The prose is pleasant and easy to read, and though the phonetic accents sometimes gave me pause I think they helped flesh out the setting in a meaningful way. Recommended for fans of high fantasy, forbidden romance, and myths or fairy tales.

Waterways

51eio9hwlxl

Waterways
by Kyell Gold
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from the Amazon page:

“Kory was having enough trouble in high school. His girlfriend just dumped him, his poetry made him a target for ridicule, and college applications were looming. The very last thing he needed was to fall in love with another boy.

Waterways is the complete novel from award-winning author Kyell Gold that includes his beloved story “Aquifers”. Join Kory as his feelings and faith collide, washing away the life he knew. His brother Nick, friends Samaki and Malaya, and Father Joe are there to help, but it’s Kory who has to navigate the thrills and perils of the new waterways that make up his life.

At stake? Nothing much — just a chance at true love and happiness. And he still has to graduate from high school…”

It’s unfortunate that the focus on anthropomorphic characters drives so many people away from this book. There are hundreds of gay coming of age novels out there and they’re all valuable for depicting unique experiences, but some are definitely better written than others. This is one of the better ones, and skipping it for fear of its “furry” content is ridiculous. I don’t remember having any qualms with anthropomorphic characters butchering each other in the Redwall series so I don’t see why that should suddenly change because this time they’ve got sexuality too. A good book is a good book and deserves to be read. Besides, the animal characteristics help make for a very interesting setting. Kory and his friends and family live in a contemporary society much like ours, but with numerous accommodations for the many different species which inhabit it. For example, since Kory’s family are otters, their house somewhat resembles a dam, where inhabitants swim from room to room instead of walk. Learning the species of each character can also tell a reader a lot about them before they ever open their mouth. A bull might have a more fiery temperament, or a cat might be less likely to get along with a mouse. I’d even say it makes for a more vibrant world, but at the very least it helps set Waterways apart from countless competitors.

In terms of actual narrative, Waterways is much more conventional. There’s a lot of angst and some mooshy high-school romance, along with a fairly standard spread of teenage problems involving school, family, work, and friends. Kory is likable and relatable, and I appreciated that his life was fairly stable besides his emerging sexuality since some coming of age stories have a tendency to pile a ton of extra problems on their protagonists and make them (and by extension, the reader) miserable. One aspect I particularly liked in this book was Kory’s struggle with his faith. Much of gay fiction won’t even touch that topic unless it is the explicit theme of the book. It seems that the popular view is that religion and homosexuality are incompatible, and I think that is a lamentable oversimplification of the problem, and not very helpful to those stuck in the middle of it, which means books like this one are more valuable for tackling it.